Why do they say: “Have a sword of Damocles on the head”?
“Having a sword of Damocles on the head” is an expression widely used in Italian to indicate imminent danger, something negative that can happen from one moment to another.
This curious way of saying derives from a very ancient history whose author was probably Timeo Tauromenio (356-260 BC.).
The episode was then handed down by Cicero in his Tusculanae.
According to the story, Damocles was a courtier at the court of Dionysius I, tyrant of Syracuse in Sicily in the fourth century BC.
Damocles was very envious of the king’s life and spent his days wishing to live in luxury and wealth, just like the sovereign.
Dionisio then decided to offer him an exchange of roles for a day: he invited him to the banquet and allowed him to sit on his throne.
At the end of the dinner, Damocles looked up at the roof and realized that there was a sword hanging right above his head, supported only by horsehair.
This was enough to ruin his dinner and make him escape from the frightened throne, asking the king to return to his post as a courtier.
Dionisio had placed the sword on Damocles’ head to make him understand that the life of a rich and powerful man like himself was not as easy as he believed but, on the contrary, full of dangers and pitfalls.
For this reason, the term “having a sword of Damocles on the head” is used when referring to a looming threat that can happen suddenly.
An excellent metaphor, therefore, to express the price that men of power must pay for their riches.